Honors Thesis Spotlight: How Collegiate Civics Education Impacts Youth Voter Participation

         Research shows that in order for people to understand and engage with political issues, they need to first understand the political system and be encouraged to participate in politics. To sow the seeds of civic participation, there is an increased prioritization on implementing civics courses and exams at the middle school, high school, and recently, the college level. House Bill 7069 is a 2017 law that requires students at Florida public colleges and universities to complete a civic literacy course or pass a civics assessment. Since Florida implemented this bill before the 2018 midterm elections, this thesis studies the effect of this law on college and non-college counties, referring to the presence or absence of public universities in the county. Comparing voter turnout in these counties allows the author to investigate the impact of required college-level civics education on voter participation.

         The author of this thesis uses the voting history of registered voters in Florida from 2006 to 2018, obtained from the Florida Voter Registration and Voting History Extract File. They first run a multivariate regression analysis to study how age impacts voter turnout. Next, they group the 2006, 2010, and 2014 midterm elections together while keeping the 2018 midterm election separate. This lets the author study turnout trends before and after the implementation of the 2017 law. The author then finds the effect of age on voter turnout using the results from the previous regressions. They also study the difference in turnout between counties that have public universities (“college counties”) and those that do not (“non-college counties”).

         The results of the tests show that in college counties, younger voters turned out more in the 2018 midterms than in the 2006, 2010, and 2014 midterms. While this is promising, the author recognizes several alternate explanations that may explain this change. In order to investigate more, the author re-runs tests that exclude college-aged voters to see if this effect is due to college-aged voters. Since the tests showed no difference between college and non-college counties in 2018, the author suggests that the effect of younger voters is attributed to college-aged voters. Ultimately, they believe that college-aged voters in college counties affected the 2018 midterms experiencing younger voters. Furthermore, they believe the civic literacy requirement positively influences voter participation.

         The author points to several limitations of the study. While they found college counties to have significantly greater amounts of voters participate in the 2018 midterms, they highlight an overall trend of increased voter participation among younger people both in college and non-college counties. However, they conclude that civics education emphasized the importance of voting, which explains why there was significantly more voter participation in college counties. Other limitations include the demographic of college-aged voters; the author explains that since college-aged voters lean towards being Democratic, and 2018 experienced a surge in Democratic voters turning out to vote, this may explain the rise in college-aged voters in 2018. The author also highlights two highly publicized issues in the 2018 Florida midterms: an amendment that pertains to felon voting rights as well as the rise in activism regarding gun violence after a shooting in a South Florida high school. Furthermore, the author points to factors such as the midterms being soon after the implementation of the bill and that some college students are registered to vote in non-college counties. They conclude that these factors are not significant enough to change the findings of the tests. Nonetheless, the author does not believe that the findings are sufficient enough to argue that the civic literacy requirements for public universities in Florida directly increase the turnout of college voters. The author suggests for future studies to conduct an experimental test to determine how civics education influences voter turnout.

Chaston Pfingston is a graduate from the College of Social Science and Public Policy at Florida State University. This post was based on Chaston’s honors thesis, written by COSSPP blog intern Jacqueline Rao. You can learn more about Chaston here. You can learn more about this project here.

Source for featured image: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chastonpfingston

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